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Row Over Uzbek Language in Kyrgyzstan

Calls for minority language to be dropped as option from school exams are dangerously incendiary, experts warn.
By Ekaterina Shoshina
  • Posters demanding an end to Uzbek-language exams in schools, during an April 18 protest outside Kyrgyzstan's parliament. (Photo:
    Posters demanding an end to Uzbek-language exams in schools, during an April 18 protest outside Kyrgyzstan's parliament. (Photo:

Kyrgyzstan’s education ministry has rebuffed an attempt to stop the country’s ethnic Uzbek school pupils taking exams in their own language.

Conflict experts warn that the no-Uzbek language campaign is dangerously divisive and potentially explosive, given the country’s recent history of ethnic bloodshed. In the space of a just a few days in June 2010, over 400 people were killed and properties burnt and ransacked in a wave of violence between Kyrgyz and Uzbeks.

The pressure began building on April 18 with a protest by 15 people of members of the Kyrgyzstan Youth Council of Kyrgyzstan outside the parliament building in Bishkek.

They accused the education ministry of acting unconstitutionally by holding state school examinations in Uzbek, since the only acceptable languages are Kyrgyz, the state language, and Russian, which serves as a lingua franca and is denoted a second “official language”.

After the protesters met members of parliament, the issue was raised by sympathetic politicians in the legislature later the same day. Jyldyzkan Joldosheva of the nationalist Ata Jurt faction, for example, insisted that only Kyrgyz and Russian should be allowed for official purposes.

Two days later, the Youth Council was joined by another youth group called Solidarity at a press conference where Uzbek-language testing was again denounced.

In response, the education ministry said the practice would continue, and explained that it was perfectly legal in view of the constitutional requirement to give minorities equal opportunities including the right to maintain their languages. Statements from President Almazbek Atambaev and Prime Minister Omurbek Babanov upheld the ministry’s stance.

Human rights ombudsman Tursunbek Akun criticised legislators who had pushed for the change, accusing them of “inciting ethnic strife”.

The nationalists’ complaints centre on the tests for university admission, which can be sat in Kyrgyz, Russian and also Uzbek. A high score in these exams exempts the candidate from university fees.

Of the 40,000 students who sat the exam last year, only 1,000 took it in Uzbek – a small number given that the community accounts for some 15 per cent of Kyrgyzstan’s population.

In their rush to protest, the nationalists seem to have completely misunderstood the current position. They took offence at the provision for Uzbek after the education ministry put a notice in the press extending the deadline for registering for the exams. The Youth Council seems to have taken the Uzbek-language tests to be a new initiative, when the whole system has been in place since 2002.

The protest comes at a time when Kyrgyzstan is still struggling to deal with the legacy of mistrust left by the 2010 clashes. In a report in March 2012, the Brussels-based advocacy organisation International Crisis Group said the government was failing to calm ethnic tensions in southern Kyrgyzstan. It expressed concern at “an emergent, strident Kyrgyz nationalism”, and the “steady pattern of unpleasantness in everyday life” facing Uzbeks in the south. (For a recent view of the mood in the south, see Unease Persists in South Kyrgyzstan.)

Nadira Narmatova, an Ata Jurt parliamentarian who supported demands to end Uzbek testing, rejected claims that campaigns around language and ethnicity tended to revive tensions. “The events of June [2010] will not be repeated,” she said.

Narmatova insisted that this was not about one ethnic group dominating others.

“Why are we portrayed as the enemy the moment we call for Kyrgyz to be spoken? They [other ethnic groups] live in Kyrgyzstan, and their great-grandfathers lived in Kyrgyzstan. If you live here, there’s nothing wrong with speaking Kyrgyz as a mark of respect. We should be patriots,” she said.

Critics of such views warn of a slide towards nationalism.

Gulshayir Abdirasulova of the Kylym Shamy human rights group said sidelining Uzbek would aggravate ethnic relations – and in any case would do nothing to advance the use of Kyrgyz in public life.

Recalling a row earlier this year about Kyrgyz politicians addressing parliament in Russian, she said, “I do not think that putting an end to testing in Uzbek and excluding Russian from official use is automatically going to make us start speaking Kyrgyz only.”

Abdirasulova welcomed the robust and speedy manner in which the government had dismissed the latest campaign. Three months ago, Ata Jurt leader Kamchibek Tashiev was forced to apologise for suggesting Prime Minister Babanov was unfit to run the country because he was not of “pure Kyrgyz” parentage.

At the same time, Abdirasulova said the response to nationalist outbursts needed to be more consistent.

“The law is applied selectively. I’m sure that if it had been Tatar or Uzbek members of parliament, instead of Tashiev and Joldosheva, they would have been immediately stripped of their immunity, dismissed and prosecuted,” she said.

Ekaterina Shoshina is an IWPR-trained journalist in Kyrgyzstan.

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